The Elián Pictures
We saw the pictures on television and in the papers all weekend. The first shows a federal agent, machine gun at the ready, seizing Elián González from the home of his Miami relatives before dawn Saturday. The second shows Elián smiling with an arm around his father, Juan Miguel, hours later in Maryland. The Miami family and its supporters have used the first picture to foment outrage against the government's raid. Juan Miguel and his supporters have used the second picture to reassure the public that Elián is safe and happy. Don't believe it. Pictures, like words, can project illusions and take events out of context. Look again at each picture. Notice what it disguises and what it omits.
Start with the image that dominated the weekend, the picture of the Miami raid.
1. Whose house is it? "The chilling picture of a little boy being removed from his home at gunpoint defies the values of America," says George W. Bush. But that's not what the picture shows. Elián isn't being removed from his home. He's being removed from the house in which his great-uncle and cousins, against his father's wishes and without legal custody, have kept him. The picture doesn't convey whose house it is. Instead, by capturing Elián's moment of terror, it suggests to the eye that the house is Elián's.
2. Who's holding Elián? The man holding Elián isn't his father, his cousin, or even a longtime family friend. He's Donato Dalrymple, one of the fishermen who plucked Elián out of the ocean last November. "They took this kid like a hostage in the nighttime," Dalrymple protested to reporters after the raid. But if Elián is the hostage in this scene, who's the kidnapper?
3. What is Elián doing? Sunday's New York Times said the picture showed Elián "hiding in a closet in the arms of" Dalrymple. But the only person who's demonstrably hiding is Dalrymple. Since Elián is in Dalrymple's arms, he has to go wherever Dalrymple takes him. If Dalrymple had carried Elián to the front door and presented him to the agents, Elián would have gone along. But that wouldn't have proved that Elián wanted to leave the house, any more than this picture proves Elián wanted to stay. It turns out, according to Monday's Times, that Dalrymple "grabbed [Elián] and hid in a closet, trying to protect the boy."
4. How did we get here? A picture captures a moment, omitting the events that led to it. In this case, the missing context includes months of effort by the U.S. Justice Department to get the Miami relatives to relinquish Elián to his father, a government order stripping the relatives of custody, the relatives' failure to turn over the boy, and a final, all-night negotiating session in which the relatives again dragged their feet and tried to set conditions for a father-son visit. According to the Times, Attorney General Janet Reno warned the relatives during the night that the time for noncompliance had run out and that if they didn't agree right away to hand over Elián, "We're going to take a law-enforcement action." The raid was the last act of the play. But it's the only act shown in the picture.
Even that act has been reduced to its final scene. The agents had arrived with a warrant to search the house for Elián and retrieve him. They had knocked on the door, announcing who they were and why they were there. Only after the relatives failed to respond had the agents broken into the house and entered the room where Dalrymple held Elián. None of these precautions shows up in the picture.
5. What does the agent see? It seems clear from the picture that Dalrymple is unarmed. But this seems clear only because the raid is now over and no weapons were found in the house. The agent in the picture doesn't know that. He's sizing up the situation in real time. He and his colleagues are heavily armed because Justice Department officials had heard there might be weapons in the house. They were wrong. But they weren't reckless.
6. What's going on outside? The picture shows only what is going on inside the house. Outside, a crowd of anti-Castro demonstrators that has dwindled from hundreds earlier in the evening is erupting in outrage. Federal officials say they wanted the agents well-armed in case extremists in the crowd made good on threats of lethal violence. That didn't happen, though some of the demonstrators scuffled with the agents and tried to block the door.
7. At whom is the gun aimed? Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., says the agent in the picture is "pointing a gun at the head of a 6-year-old boy." House Majority Whip Tom DeLay says the agent is "waving a machine gun at" Elián. But the reason you can see the agent's trigger finger clearly is that it's extended alongside the gun, not curled around the trigger. And the impression that the gun is pointed at Elián is an optical illusion caused by compressing a three-dimensional scene into a two-dimensional photograph. In the vertical dimension, Reno says the gun is pointed down, which agents call the "search position." That's not clear, but the more salient point is that in the horizontal dimension, the gun is pointed in the direction of Dalrymple rather than Elián—which is logical, because Dalrymple is holding Elián, and the agents had been warned of violence at the house and were under orders to protect Elián. If you saw the picture on CNN Saturday morning, you had no idea the gun was pointed at anyone other than Elián, because Dalrymple had been squeezed out of the picture.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photographs of: the raid by Alan Diaz/Reuters; the reunion courtesy of AFP Photo/the office of Greg Craig.